‘I will not get African bongos played when I am laid to rest; I have earned the bagpipes’
True DEI efforts must be intentional and prioritized, and create opportunities for all people to join the fire service family
I grew up in central Massachusetts. Most of my family, if not my entire family, resided in Roxbury and Dorchester, a predominately Black section of Boston.
I enjoyed my childhood outside of Boston, but a couple of things were different about me than the kids I grew up with. For one, I wasn’t Catholic. And two, I bleed green, but I wasn’t Irish. The only other Black person at my school was my twin brother.
Friends would sometimes ask me or my brother, “Where are you from?” I was never offended by this question when I was a kid, and they were not trying to offend me. My response would sometimes be “Boston,” or I would say I was born in Worcester. I could see the disappointment in their faces when I did not say some exotic country in Africa. Unknown to me at the time, I am the sixth great-grandson of a Revolutionary War patriot who went from slave to soldier. The Irish did not arrive until the 1820s. So, it turns out, my friends were the ones who were the foreigners, although I was the one that sometimes felt foreign.
“I wanted those bagpipes”: My introduction to fire service culture
Years later, some firefighters from Massachusetts died. I remember the funeral and the bagpipes. Being from Massachusetts, I of course had heard and seen bagpipes before, but why were they at the funeral, I wondered. The men who died were not even Irish.
So, I asked my mother, “Ma, why are they playing bagpipes? They weren’t Irish.” Her response: “In that job, all of them believe they are the same, so they get treated the same way in death.”
My mind started racing. Oh, how I wanted those bagpipes to sing for me. No, I did not want to die, not at all, but I knew I wanted those bagpipes. They all were the same, they all belonged, they all were saluted.
I will not get African bongos played when I am laid to rest; I have earned the bagpipes.
“We are seen as heroes”: Representation, not just imagination
Diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) is the big topic of the day in public safety. Representation matters because fire departments are No. 1 in the eyes of kids. We are seen as heroes.
I loved superheroes as a kid. But something was missing. I did not see anyone who looked like me wearing a cape. I guess on Krypton, everyone is white, and everyone who Superman saves is white, too. It is difficult to imagine being a hero when you have never seen one who looks like you before.
Further, Black people and women are often portrayed as cops or criminals on TV or in movies. As a result, police officers don’t hear people say to them, “I have never seen a black cop before” or “I didn’t know women could be cops.” Yet, they are rarely portrayed as tiller drivers or hazmat techs.
This is one of the many reasons fire departments need to show diversity among the ranks. The kids want to see someone that looks like them wearing a cape.
“Checking a box for DEI”: The problem with traditional recruitment efforts
What is the racial makeup in your city? What is the racial makeup of your department? What is the racial makeup of your city’s sanitation or solid waste services department?
In my city, 75% of the fire department is white, and 80% of the sanitation department is Black. This isn’t a coincidence. There are systemic issues and historical factors at play. If your mayor or city manager is unaware of these statistics and the historical factors in which they are rooted, then your city is, at best, just checking a box for DEI.
If we take DEI as a social science, there is a wrong way and a right way to create equitable structures in the workplace. Hiring people of color or women to “fill a quota” is the wrong way. Don’t just send out some women who work here and create some flyers that show people of color. That is how historically most departments try to create a diverse candidate pool. I can assure you this is not the best way to hire the best firefighters. Further, hiring historically marginalized groups just to create diversity will lead to animosity with white firefighters. That animosity creates tokenism in the department, and Black firefighters often feel resented.
This cannot be stressed enough: If you are not creating an equitable and inclusive department, you are creating a hostile work environment for the Black people you hired.
“Getting involved”: Community engagement must go beyond stop, drop and roll
My first senior firefighter taught me almost everything about our craft. He had been firefighting since he was a 15-year-old volunteer. He is from Vance County, North Carolina. When you think of a Southern country boy, this is him. He loved firefighting and more so loved being a firefighter. His lessons and his passion for this life were contagious.
Historically, rural and suburban volunteer fire departments are known for being, “good old boy” social clubs. You typically can’t just join and volunteer if you live there; you must be invited in, and blood is the best way to get in.
The same holds true for many metropolitan departments. Almost every city department has legacy firefighters, siblings and cousins who work in the same department. Third- and fourth-generation firefighters are commonplace. It is a family profession. But we must reach beyond the social clubs and familial relationships if we ever hope to show a truly inclusive department.
Every department needs to make a long-term investment in historically marginalized communities to attract members at an early age. And community engagement is different than just fire safety education – and must go well beyond. For example, our local police department engages in a barbershop talk with local Black youth. What does law enforcement have to do with cutting hair? The barbershop talk was created so officers could interact with youth in a way they typically would not. This builds relationships, this builds neighborhoods, and it helps officers and residents to see each other as people. Additionally, the D.A.R.E. program brought police officers into schools across the country.
The fire service has never had an equivalent where we are introduced to youth early. As firefighters, we are neighbors within a community, and we should be good neighbors by getting involved in non-fire safety community engagement.
“Intentionally focused on equity”: The key to avoiding discrimination claims
It seems “equality” was the key phrase in the previous decades for treating people the same. Statements like “I don’t see color” were considered progressive and forward-thinking. However, if DEI is a social science, then that statement is antiquated.
In your department, what is the diversity of your chief officers and senior staff? Does it reflect the demographics of your city? Does it reflect the demographics of your department among the rank and file? What are the demographics of the people who are terminated, resigned or put on extended probation? Does that match the demographics of your department? Chances are your chief officers and senior staff are less diverse than the rest of your department. Chances are your termination and disciplinary actions are disproportionate as well. But how can this happen when nobody is openly racist, and each termination or promotion is unrelated?
If your department is not intentionally focused on equity, it will probably unintentionally practice discrimination. Things have a way of causing disparate impact, which is illegal, unintentionally or not. It is a liability that your department’s reputation can’t afford. Most major city fire departments have had at least one discriminatory lawsuit where the department has settled. Win or lose, these lawsuits portray the department in a negative light, and create racial division within the departments. Lines are drawn in the sand, and now you are either a bagpipe or bongo firefighter.
“Nobody to watch over them”: The colors of complication
Black fire officers have it particularly difficult, and at times, can even make things more complicated.
In the fire service, Black officers are keenly aware of the racial history of their own department. These salty firefighters came in at a time when seeing other Black firefighters was extremely rare or just never happened. Often these firefighters look at millennial firefighters with hyper-scrutiny and can be overly critical. They can feel that they had nobody to watch over them when they were new, and now must make sure they do everything perfectly. Some Black officers will make statements like, “If I can rise in the ranks, anyone can.” This is a conundrum, because the officer is either exceptional or mediocre. All chief officers, regardless of race, will say they had to work hard and rise above others to earn the rank.
“Create a DEI work environment”: The challenge for all officers
The system that does not intentionally build equity inherently works against progression. And such a system will deteriorate faster than any program can repair it. Creation of a DEI initiative will not magically fix the system. Either the system needs to be abolished to create a new one, or you need to create new rules, policies, practices, procedures and culture to transform the existing system. You cannot repair a system by putting a bunch of minorities on a billboard that says, “Join our team.”
Inclusionary leadership is difficult in the fire service. We have an autocratic command structure; our challenge is to make it work.
This challenge is for chief officers of any race or gender. The doctor who will ultimately cure cancer likely will not be plagued with the ailment themselves. Does it matter that the doctor who gives chemotherapy has never had chemotherapy? What is more important, that the doctor knows how you feel or that the doctor treats you for cancer?
Many of my white brothers will say to me, “I don’t know what it feels like to be Black” – and this statement is from the most caring place, and I appreciate it, but it doesn’t matter. I don’t need you to know what it feels like to be Black; your department needs you to know how to create a diverse, equitable, inclusive work environment.
All Black people do not know how to create equity in the workspace. Yes, all Black people know how it feels to be Black, but that is not the same thing as creating DEI. To create true DEI, we need white doctors. White people can and will need to become teachers and innovators in building equitable workplaces. Innovators of DEI cannot solely be the responsibility of the historically marginalized.
“Justice will not be served until those who are unaffected are as outraged as those who are.”
― The first fire chief, Benjamin Franklin
This needs to be a task that we all undertake together. A Black administrator often gets a pass because people think they know what they are doing when it comes to DEI. White administrators are often dismissed because they “don’t know what it feels like to be Black.” But DEI is not the high school multicultural club. It is not the everyone-gets-a trophy team where we all hold hands and feel special.
“That would be inclusion”: The entire culture changes
At the end of almost any DEI training, someone – hopefully not the instructor – will inevitably say, “I was raised to respect all people” or “Treat everyone with respect.” That is great, but it is not going to fix the systemic racial issues within the department. The top brass must prioritize intentional equity and inclusion or find someone who can teach them how.
DEI is not only about respecting one another at the firehouse, it is about transforming the entire culture of your fire department.
Perhaps at my funeral, the Kilts that are worn will be made of Kente cloth. I believe that would be inclusion.